In what has become something of a yearly ritual, controversy has erupted leading up to the 2014 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago. This has led to a spike in readership for my sleepy little blog. Specifically the November 21, 2011 Open Letter that I wrote in response to a Twitter argument with the Modern Language Association Executive Director, Rosemary Feal, in regards to the role of a “scholarly/professional” organization such as the MLA.
Being a literary historian by training, I have to admit that I’m addicted to comparisons (then vs. now). So let’s pause for a moment to see what has changed since I penned the most read piece of writing I’ve ever composed (2,221 readers and counting).
I guess the best place to start is with my life and career. For those readers who’ve taken the time to click on my CV link, you’ll see that I was not fired from my job for writing the open letter. Instead I found myself hired as a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then went on to serve as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at that same institution. In addition, I have a book manuscript soon to come out based on research from my PhD dissertation and I’m getting married to the love of my life in June. So you see, good things can happen off the tenure track.
None of these personal events, however, negate the systemic problems that remain in Higher Education. Students, crushed by a heavy debt burden, are leaving the humanities in droves for fields of study that appear to promise lucrative employment following graduation. Administrators are using this trend to hire more non-tenure track faculty and consolidate department structures. Back in 2011 it was much easier to find a department of English or French and locate its chair. Try doing that same activity today. You’ll find that many have become programs housed within “schools” of language and literature whose leadership roles are primarily symbolic. Faculty and Staff find themselves squeezed, burdened with extra work, most of it unpaid. This leads to a climate of greater isolation and snarkiness in many instances. An ethos that all too readily migrates to the internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Those who should be fighting together are instead (in many cases) fighting against each other.
Frustrated by the circular rhetoric deployed by the MLA leadership, I turned away from pushing the Modern Language Association for change in 2011 and instead turned to a union (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors). We’ve accomplished quite a bit on the UIC campus since then. The most astonishing change I’ve seen is a growing solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty who don’t need to study “vulnerable times” because they are living them–together.
As I’ve long argued, many of the issues faced by NTT faculty are issues of prestige and recognition. These can be dealt with at the departmental level. One we addressed on our campus was the lack of name placards for NTT faculty on their office doors. We are also working to get biographies of NTT faculty added to the department website to recognize the work done by these hard working teachers and scholars. In addition, our department’s associate head has begun storing NTT faculty CV’s to get a sense of the full range of capabilities possessed by the department’s full faculty (TT and NTT).
While the department works to change the attitudes of TT and NTT faculty, union leaders are currently struggling to work on issues of appointment and compensation. Even though state law requires NTT and TT faculty to have separate contracts, we are one bargaining team and one union fighting to save the university as we understand it. Our union, UIC United Faculty, voted in the fall to authorize a strike. We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are willing to put our beliefs to the test. Now is the time to fight not form a committee to study the subject of resource allocation in higher ed.
Has the MLA done the same? Have they finally realized that we’re at war with a Neoliberal system that wants to return to higher ed as it was in the Gilded Age (a handful of prestige institutions such as Harvard and Yale surrounded by an ocean of trade-specific academies)?
Yes and No.
Since 2011, the MLA has made significant gains in changing the leadership roles for NTT and Alt-Ac members. It has also worked to update the conference format and encourage graduate students and graduate programs to look at alternate career paths for PhDs.
What remains unaddressed, however, is the need for activism. The MLA still sees a “scholarly/professional” organization as a neutral body. Neutrality was a farce in 2011. It remains so today.
If I’ve been silent on these issues for so long on the internet, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I’ve been active taking part in the creation of the kind of educational system I want to see in place for my children. The time for words is over. We’ve spent a lifetime studying “vulnerable times.” Let’s start doing something about it.